The biggest explosion of the Great War?

Published in Features, Issue 4 (July/August 2017), Volume 25, World War I

Messines Ridge, 3am, 7 June 1917—an Irish soldier’s eyewitness account.

By Seán Boyne

Patrick Carroll would always remember the moment the massive explosion was set off by the sappers. It happened just after 3 o’clock in the morning of 7 June 1917, and the ground shook furiously as if there had been an earthquake. The Irishman, serving with the Royal Dublin Fusiliers (RDF), was awestruck as he witnessed the biggest man-made explosion of the First World War when Messines Ridge was blown up, killing or wounding thousands of German soldiers.

Letter to Hayes-McCoy
From his address at 71 Pearse Street, Dublin, Carroll wrote a twenty-page letter in April 1959 to the eminent academic and military historian G.A. Hayes-McCoy. The letter was almost lost when his house was being cleared out, but was happily saved by the historian’s son, Robert Hayes-McCoy, who has now made it available.

Carroll wrote his letter in response to a review by Hayes-McCoy of a book by an American writer, Leon Wolff, about the Flanders campaign of 1917. The review was published in the Irish Press on 4 April 1959, and Carroll disagreed with what he saw as negative comments made by Wolff about the Messines Ridge battle. So far as Carroll was concerned, ‘the battle was a great success’, and Field Marshal Earl Haig ‘sent a telegram’ thanking the commander of the 16th (Irish) Division, Major General William Hickie: ‘The whole German army on the Messines front was undoubtedly demoralised and stunned, as indeed any other army would have been’.

Above: One of the massive mine explosions at Messines Ridge experienced by Royal Dublin Fusilier Patrick O’Carroll on the morning of 7 June 1917. (YOONIQ Images)

‘The most terrible [explosion] I ever heard’
In old age, Carroll recalled the explosion as ‘the most terrible I ever heard of or seen’, and was astonished at the massive craters that resulted. It was said that the British prime minister, Lloyd George, heard the explosion in London. For months the British had been tunnelling under the German positions on the Messines Ridge in West Flanders, and hundreds of tons of explosives had been put in place. Carroll recalled the moment the explosion was set off:

‘The earth, where we were, trembled. Everyone was knocked up against everyone else. It was worse than an earthquake. My own reaction that morning was that the German army had sprung the mine on us and we were all going to be swallowed up in the bowels of the earth, buried alive …’

After the explosion, British forces moved forward under a rolling barrage, and Carroll told how his own regiment, the RDF, advanced on the village of Wijtschate [Wytschaete] ‘and captured it straight away’. ‘We advanced hundreds of yards beyond our objective, and great big posters [were] thrown down from the planes overhead warning us we had gone too far altogether and to return back to what in big white posters was called The Blue Line.’

He told how thousands of German soldiers were killed by the explosion and many others taken prisoner, and how the prisoners assisted in dealing with the casualties:

‘Behind one line held by the Royal Dublin Fusiliers we counted 5,000 prisoners by 11am, not counting other parts held by other Irish regiments and Australians. On the battlefield itself there were hundreds of German soldiers wounded and hundreds dead. Accompanied by German sergeant majors and German NCOs we got all the men [German prisoners] we found fit to come out on the battlefield and help to bandage up their wounded and ours and carry both into the ambulances and away to the hospitals behind the lines. They also helped to bury their own dead and ours after we got the identity disks both from the bodies of the German soldiers and our own dead.’

He described how many prisoners were incapable of giving help, as they were still suffering from the after-effects of the massive blast:

‘When I pointed out to the German NCO that I wanted this man or that to help us take the wounded off the field and bury their dead, the most of them put their hands around their heads indicating their heads were very bad, as well they might, as they went through a terrible time …’

He expressed great respect for the German soldier, saying that he was a ‘first-class soldier, brave, obedient to those over him, and well disciplined’, and ‘brave even until death’. He went on: ‘I never heard any British soldier express any ill-will against the German army’.

Rum ration
One of Carroll’s tasks before the battle was to issue rum to the soldiers in his platoon. He recalled with amusement how one ‘very brave’ soldier called Pim from Blackrock, Co. Dublin, was not troubled about ‘the hail of bullets’ he was about to face, but was extremely anxious that he would not get a good tot of rum, as Carroll was using a ‘bent spoon’ to dole out the liquor. In fact, Pim did get his fair share of rum, as Carroll gave him some of his own, ‘as I didn’t care for alcohol then or now’.

Machine-gunner Billy Cooke
Carroll also wrote about his service in the 2nd Battalion of the RDF during the Second Battle of Ypres in April–May 1915, and had vivid memories of a comrade from Kilcullen, Co. Kildare, called Billy Cooke, who was a machine-gunner. ‘This man I’d say was one of the bravest men in the army or any other army. He was a quiet man, always in good humour, but behind this quietness was a man of iron nerves.’

Carroll recalled how one day the German artillery opened up on his trench and nearly all the platoon, including the officer, were ‘killed or wounded or nearly buried alive’. To his horror, Carroll spotted a German officer with about 40 men moving quickly through the mist towards their trench. He alerted Cooke, who rushed to the top of a wrecked farmhouse, and with his machine-gun opened a withering fire on the Germans, killing or wounding half of them. ‘The German officer still urges his men on, they are now at our wire defence, 20 to 30 yards away. Cooke is still firing like hell at them.’ Then the German officer seemed to realise the mortal danger and he put his hands up, his men doing the same. Cooke went out into no-man’s land and led the German officer and his men into the trench and into captivity. Carroll recalled how the German officer said to him, in perfect English, ‘Sergeant, where are all your men?’ Carroll replied, ‘All dead or wounded. I’m waiting for reinforcements.’ The reinforcements were arriving just then. The German said, ‘I wished I had known that. I would have pushed on with the attack.’ Carroll replied, ‘Too late, Sir, the war is over for you and your men.’ Carroll added, ‘Cooke smiled at this, so did the German officer, and the men seeing their officer smile, they smiled also. So did I.’ For his bravery that day, 25 April 1915, Acting Sergeant William Cooke was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal.

Carroll wrote how Cooke was later sent to the Dardanelles and was out on patrol when a Turkish sniper ‘noticed Billy lying in the thick grass’. As dawn broke on 3 October 1915, the Turk ‘put a bullet straight into the head of the famous Billy Cooke. The bravest of the brave died instantly.’

Later life
Carroll saw much action during his four years’ service in the war, and was lucky to survive the carnage in conflict zones such as the Somme, Messines and Ypres. On his return to Dublin, he took up a rather safer occupation as postman. He lived at Strand Road, Sandymount, and in 1926, at St Kevin’s Church, Harrington Street, married his sweetheart, Alice Boyle, from Harty Place, off the South Circular Road. The couple took up residence at 71 Pearse Street, living over the post office, which Alice ran as postmistress for decades. Having seen so much war, Patrick became an advocate of peace. He closes his long letter to Hayes-McCoy thus: ‘We don’t want any more wars. Germans, British, Italians, Americans, French—if they stand together, there will be peace.’ Patrick Carroll, who also used the ‘O’Carroll’ version of his name, died at his home on Pearse Street, aged 80, on 29 August 1963. Alice died the following year, aged 71.

Seán Boyne is the author of Emmet Dalton: Somme soldier, Irish general, film pioneer (Merrion Press, 2014).

FURTHER READING
T. Burke, ‘Brotherhood among Irishmen? The Battle of Wijtschate-Messines Ridge, June 1917’, History Ireland 15 (5) (2007).

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